Writing Lessons

Be Open to Surprise


By Robert Hellenga

November 24, 2014



The piece of advice that sticks in my mind came from Richard Bausch at the only writing workshop I’ve ever attended—at the Johns Hopkins University—so long ago I can’t remember when. Here it is: “Intentionality is the enemy.” I understand this to mean not that you shouldn’t make plans or outlines, but that you should be open to surprise at every step of the way, all the way to the final draft. I wrote my first short story in that workshop, “Pockets of Silence,” and the ending surprised the hell out of me.

What happens is that Margot tells us about the tapes—reel-to-reel in those days—that her mother made for the family as she was dying. She had important things she wanted to say to each and every one of them, recollections under pressure of death of a happy and productive and sometimes turbulent life.

The family doesn’t listen to the tapes till a year after Mama’s death. And then, on New Year’s Day, Papa gets out the tape recorder and puts on the first of the seven tapes.

I got this far in the story with no problems, but then I had to come up with something really good at the end. What could Mama say, Margot wonders, that would alter the course of their lives?

I thought and thought, but I couldn’t think of a thing. And then it hit me. The tapes are blank. The tape recorder had malfunctioned. And for the rest of her life Margot sometimes catches herself, involuntarily, listening for the sound of her mother’s voice, still waiting for the tape to begin.


Robert Hellenga taught English at Knox College from 1968 to about 2006 and then retired gradually to write full time. His latest novel is The Confessions of Frances Godwin. Coming up on the horizon: “The Truth About Death and Other Stories.”

Comments powered by Disqus